Parliamentary inquiry recommends more senators for the ACT and Northern Territory
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in its final report tabled on Monday recommended the number of senators from each territory be doubled to four.

The government is considering whether voters in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory should be given extra senators.

The influential Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in its final report tabled on Monday, has recommended the number of senators from each territory be doubled to four.

Special Minister of State Don Farrell is already pursuing recommendations from the committee’s interim report for caps on electoral spending and donations. He plans legislation next year.

While the government may be sympathetic in principle to the territories having extra senators, its response is likely to depend on its calculations of the probable effect on the political composition of future Senates. The proportional representation voting system for the Senate usually leaves crossbenchers with the balance of power there.

If the territories each had four senators facing the people at each election, this would reduce the quota for election and boost the chances of more crossbenchers being elected.

One option with minimal political fallout would be to have the territory senators, who at present go out at each election, switch to six-year terms, the same as senators from the states. This would mean two in each territory would face the voters at each election.

Under the Constitution, the states have equal representation, regardless of size. The committee’s majority report said the territories’ representation should be considered on a similar basis to the representation of the smaller states.

“The Federal Parliament’s ability to over-rule territory legislation further highlights the need for the two territories to be appropriately represented in the Parliament,” the report said.

In a dissenting report, the Coalition said if the recommendation was adopted a senator from NSW would need 25 times more votes than a senator from the NT to be elected.

“The Coalition members of the committee oppose increasing the number of Territory Senators on the grounds that it would be the greatest level of malapportionment since Federation.”

ACT independent senator David Pocock, who defeated a Liberal at the last election, said: “This is a huge step forward when it comes to ensuring the people of the ACT and NT have their voices heard and their interest better considered when legislation is being passed”.

Pocock advocates the government legislating to link territory representation to that of the states, which would mean an automatic increase if the number of state senators rose.

“But I warmly welcome the recommendation for an increase to four senators and encourage the government to commit to implementing this ahead of the next election,” Pocock said,

The committee in its report raises the controversial question of an increase in the size of the parliament. It says the government should consider asking it to inquire into an increase in the House of Representatives “to reduce malapportionment and improve the ratio of electors to MPs”.

A bigger lower house would mean the Senate would have to be increased to keep the nexus between the houses required by the Constitution.

The Coalition said it had concerns about increasing the size of the parliament “in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis”.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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